Small town ragamuffins now feted by the world

Daniel Connors used to be known in Toomelah, an Aboriginal settlement on the NSW-Queensland border, as the boy who drowned.

His father, Michael, believes he was unconscious for 45 minutes in the local river before being discovered and resuscitated. Within days, he was back to normal, except that he no longer stuttered.

Now Daniel, a livewire 11-year-old, is best known as the star of Toomelah, a confronting and moving film shot in the former mission by Ivan Sen, an indigenous writer-director whose mother grew up there.

The often comic drama centres on a sensitive boy drawn towards the gangster lifestyle of the local drug dealer. It's a fictional story but like the real life Daniel the film's Daniel has been suspended from school and lives in a community dealing with substance abuse, unemployment and stolen generation grief.

Sen cast Toomelah locals who had never acted, wanting the film to be ''a fly on the wall tour of an indigenous community for the rest of Australia''.

When it screened at the Cannes Film Festival, Toomelah received a standing ovation.

At the Sydney Film Festival, there was warm applause. And to top it off, the softly-spoken boy from ''the mish'' was nominated as best actor at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards, which covers 70 countries.

For months, many of the settlement's 300 residents have been watching clips on YouTube and asking when they could see the completed film. This week, Sen brought Toomelah home.

As a blow-up screen was installed at the Toomelah Tigers footy oval, the director caught up with the cast who are now friends.

Twenty four years ago, the settlement shocked Marcus Einfeld, then president of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, with its appalling living conditions, including dilapidated housing, children playing amid sewerage and a single tap that worked for just 15 minutes twice a day.

''All those physical things - water, housing, education - have improved but what remains is the conditions of the psyche,'' Sen said. ''That's the bigger challenge for governments and for them as well. It's trying to get a system of living that's a healthy one and sustaining their culture at the same time.''

After school, as scores of young children played in the streets, a popular activity was driving round and round the settlement. A packed ute driven by a 13-year-old girl and an equally crowded sedan driven by a 12-year-old girl were out ''lappin''. Sitting by the river where he almost drowned, Daniel said he wanted to be an actor now and make more films with Sen.

''The first day of shooting, I was a bit 'shame' from everyone watching me then I just got used to it,'' he said, admitting that he was tired after Facebooking with his cousin Freddie until 4am.

He found out about his acting nomination when ''Dad just walked up to me sobbing, grabbed me, took me into my room and started shaking my hand''.

When the screening started on a warm humid night, more than 200 people were gathered in grandstands, cars and chairs from the local hall. They laughed uproariously every time someone from the community appeared on the screen and, as the credits rolled, beeped car horns and clapped as though the Tigers had won the grand final.

''I loved it,'' declared Elenore Binge. ''I want a copy.''

Michael Connors, Daniel's real life and screen father, was quietly crying. ''I'm not upset or anything,'' he said. ''Just happy.''

The Herald travelled to Toomelah as a guest of Bunya Productions. The film opens in cinemas on November 24.